I saw "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" on opening night in December 2001. Following the DVD releases of the movie, I became very excited about seeing "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers", and I bought tickets for the first morning show on opening day for the second installment of the Middle-Earth saga. As the movie played before my eyes, I kept waiting for something--anything--that would spark the adventure to life. Alas, I left the theatre shaking my head. I was sorely disappointed by an underwhelming outing.
There is plenty of muscular, visceral filmmaking on display in "LOTR 2", but there is little wit or subtlety. The movie bludgeons rather than persuades, bullying viewers into perceiving elves and men as the good guys rather than trusting us to make our own judgments. The editors also make the mistake of jumping from one story thread to another just as the one that we were watching was getting interesting. When the movie ended, I wasn't confused as much as I was annoyed.
My biggest beef with Peter Jackson's "LOTR 2" is its depiction of Sauron as the baddest bad-ass in Middle-Earth. In the movie, it seems as if Sauron is interested only in destroying the race of man as well as any vestiges of moral good. However, if Sauron really managed to kill all of his enemies, then who would be left for him to rule? It would be one thing if Sauron were simply a madman. However, given the way that the film's heroes talk about his deeds, it seems to me that Sauron must be a pretty smart guy in order to be capable of causing so much grief.
Okay, I concede that J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" hardly delved into the psychology of Sauron's behavior, but Peter Jackson and Company missed out on an opportunity to improve upon the source novel. Dogmatic faithfulness to the spirit of a book is useless if that devotion does not yield cinematically desirable results. What Tolkien did not do with his novel can't be rectified, but the movies inspired by his "LOTR" ought to have raised the story to new heights. Instead, they tread cautiously for fear of offending die-hards.
I do respect the forthrightness of the filmmakers for treating "LOTR 2" as part of an organic whole rather than a "part 2 of something". "LOTR 2" begins without flashbacks to the first movie. There isn't even a voiceover narration to help newbies find their footing in the second movie. Instead, we're plunged right into the action, with wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) defeating the fire-monster Balrog; with Gondorian Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) tracking hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) (who were abducted by Uruk-hai in "LOTR 1"); with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) taking The One Ring closer and closer to Morder. Frodo and Sam finally come face to face with Gollum (Andy Serkis), who used to be a hobbit named Smeagol. Gollum guides Frodo and Sam in their perilous quest. Gandalf returns as Gandalf the White because Saruman (Christopher Lee) disgraced the office of Isengard. Since Saruman is sending an army of 10,000 Uruk-hai to destroy the people of Rohan, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli join the Rohirrim in defending the fortress of Helm's Deep.
There's plenty of testosterone, but estrogen is in short supply. Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) makes a brief appearance in Aragorn's dreams (these passages were inspired by the Appendices to the "LOTR" tome). Rohirrim princess Eowyn (Miranda Otto) tempts Aragorn while she tries to prove herself as capable of fighting as any man. Tree lovers will get a kick out of seeing...well, trees that uproot themselves and attack Saruman for cutting down the trees that used to surround Isengard.
The best human performance in the movie comes from Viggo Mortensen. The actor seems more and more like the king that he is meant to be in "LOTR 3". Still, there is little that Mortensen's performance can do to balance the errors in judgment made by Peter Jackson. For example, most of the actors bring an air of gravity to their roles. However, Legolas and Gimli crack many jokes, even in the midst of a fierce battle. The jokes threw me off guard, taking me out of the serious grimness of the story. Also, rather than relating individual narrative threads in separate chunks (as Tolkien did), Jackson decided to unroll everything simultaneously, resulting in frustrating cross-cutting. Just as I was getting interested in the interplay between Frodo and Gollum, I was yanked to Rohan to see King Theoden hemming and hawing about whether or not he wants to fight the forces of evil. Just as I was settling into my chair to absorb the Helm's Deep sequence, I was told that I had to go to the nearest forest to watch some trees hemming and hawing about joining the crusade. Ugh.
Is there anything at all in "LOTR 2" that I appreciated? Yes--I think that Andy Serkis and the film's visual effects workers did a great job in bringing Gollum to life. Since the computer-animated Gollum was basically matched to Serkis's actual physical performance, the expressions on the character's face are the most genuine of any computer-generated performance to date. Serkis managed to find the pathos in Gollum's split/conflicted personality, and I was surprised by how much I responded to Gollum's emoting. He is a fine synthesis of live-action and digital work, and at the very least, the visual effects wizards at WETA (Jackson's own production house) won an Oscar for their efforts (an award that they should share with Serkis). In fact, Gollum is the thing that's tipping my hand towards recommending the film.
I wanted "LOTR 1" to be much longer than 3 hours because I enjoyed its rich texture. I wanted "LOTR 2" to be much shorter than 3 hours, for it did nothing to convince me that it needed so much time to say so little. Despite the obvious technical expertise of its makers, the movie feels routine compared to other CGI extravaganzas such as "Minority Report".
The "LOTR 2" 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation shares many of the qualities that defined the "LOTR 1" (two-disc set) transfer. The smooth image exhibits little grain, and I didn't see any scratches. Despite the fact that many scenes are set at night or in darkly-lit areas, the compression doesn't falter. Images appear to have real depth, and you can see many visual details that you probably didn't notice when you saw the film in theatres. However, the transfer isn't as consistently sharp as the one that was done for "LOTR 1", so some images look blurred or "blob-ish" in the background.
New Line is also releasing a Pan&Scan version of "LOTR 2". Since the Pan&Scan process destroys filmmakers' cinematographic compositions, I recommend that you avoid the Pan&Scan version at all costs. With a movie as wide as "LOTR 2", you lose at least 50% of the original picture, a loss unacceptable to anyone serious about films.
For me, "LOTR 2" was the loudest movie experience since...well, "LOTR 1". The same sequences that threatened to shatter my ears in the theatre have been well-reproduced on DVD. The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX English track features a nearly continuous bass presence. Clashing swords, explosions, and echoes flood the room. Howard Shore's orchestral score benefits greatly from the mix's smooth imaging across the speakers. What's really great about the audio mix for "LOTR 2" is that there are several passages with nothing except ambient environmental noises and dialogue, and the stillness is as well-done as the loud stuff.
The DVD also includes a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround English track (for those of you without digital 5.1 set-ups), and optional English and Spanish subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.
Clicking on the New Line logo in the Main Menu will access DVD production credits.
Since New Line saves the meaty in-depth features for these movies' four-disc releases, the extras that come with the two-disc sets are mostly promotional in nature. Still, they're well-done, and they ease people not familiar with the "LOTR" world into the movies.
The first extras are two promos that appeared on TV. "On the Set--‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'" first played on the premium cable channel Starz Encore. It's basically an extended trailer for the movie, though it has some behind-the-scenes shots as well as interviews with some of the filmmakers. "Return to Middle-earth" played on the The WB, and it's a good, hour-long summary of the film's plot.
The disc also offers "The Long and Short of It", a short film directed by Sean Astin (Sam). There's also "The Making of ‘The Long and Short of It".
There are eight featurettes made for www.lordoftherings.net: "Forces of Darkness", "Designing the Sounds of Middle-earth", "Edoras: The Rohan Capital", "Creatures of Middle-earth", "Gandalf the White", "Arms and Armor", "The Battle of Helm's Deep", and "Bringing Gollum to Life". There's a five-minute preview of the Special Extended DVD Edition that's being released in November, and there's a twelve-minute behind-the-scenes preview of "The Return of the King". Finally, there are theatrical trailers, TV spots, Emiliana Torrini's "Gollum's Song" music video, and a preview of EA's "The Return of the King" video game.
Those of you with DVD-ROM access can use the weblinks encoded on the DVDs.
Since an Amaray slim double-keepcase houses the 2 discs, there's a glossy fold-out that provides extras and chapter listings.
Yes, I know that "LOTR 2" is the middle part of an epic story, and many people have told me that a "slow-down" is to be expected. I disagree with that excusatory assessment. Without having to set up the plot and its characters as "LOTR 1" did, "LOTR 2" could have been a home run since it should have taken the accomplishments of its predecessor and made a grand experience of itself. Instead, we get interminable scenes of people flopping in despair, only to be rescued by some deus ex machina. If you want a powerful, thrilling, involving, and moving second chapter in a fantasy series, watch or read "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" instead.
Additional Ramblings by John J. Puccio:
You now get to hear from DVD Town's designated buffer between Eddie and the angry mobs ready to tear his throat out.
I liked the movie.
Of course, liking the movie is nothing special. "The Two Towers" was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award; it was voted the Online Film Critics Society's Best Picture of the year; it won scores of other prizes; and it was the biggest box-office attraction of 2002. But do these accolades prove it's a great film? No, but they help.
For me, "The Two Towers" was simply the most enjoyable film I saw all year. Greatness, as in "classic" status, comes with time, though, and no one can predict how audiences will react to something twenty years on. Nor is "The Two Towers" meant to stand on its own, as Eddie has mentioned. As the midsection of a trilogy, it will probably be seen by future generations as just another part of the whole, for better or for worse.
Needless to say, because I loved "The Fellowship of the Rings" so much, I loved "The Two Towers" as well. Unlike Eddie, however, I found "The Two Towers" quite exhilarating, although I must admit I didn't care for it as much as I did the first installment. This is in direct contrast, by the way, to literally every one of my students I've talked to who enjoyed the more extensive action in "The Two Towers" over the relative calm of "The Fellowship." Still, I'd have to accord both films 9/10 ratings for the sheer magnitude of their accomplishment.
Eddie has alluded to the redundancy of the battle sequences, the "interminable scenes of people flopping in despair," and to an extent I concur. Yet, anyone who has read the complete "Lord of the Rings" will likely recall the second book as the war chapters. Although it had been over thirty years since I read the novels, it's the way I always think of them, so the movie's emphasis on continuous physical conflict came as no surprise. What did surprise me, though, was the number of times my wife in the seat next to me kept nudging me and complaining about all the changes the filmmakers had made from the book. She's much more the Tolkien aficionado than I am, and she recognized every variation from the text that came up. There appeared to be about two or three times the number of such nudges than I'd received during "The Fellowship." Still and all, the changes were apparently no more than a minor annoyance to her and had little effect on her overall enjoyment of the film. She said afterward it was her favorite film of the year, too.
"The Two Towers" was never meant to be a great stand-alone movie (despite its awards), nor is it a particularly accomplished bit of storytelling in terms of character or plot development. But the unforgettable personality of Gollum will stay in memory for a long while, and the battle sequences are to me among the best staged and most exciting ever created for the screen. Both Gollum and the battles are a triumph of integrated art, technology, and sheer logistics. All in all, it's a wonderfully entertaining piece of filmmaking, significantly different from its predecessor in tone, and filled with as much spectacle and wonder as any motion picture I've seen.